THESE are not the best of times for George Bush's presidency. For months now, he has been bombarded with criticism from all quarters: from the Democrats, of course; from the Perotists, before their leader packed it in; from various groups of conservative activists. Now, the Angry Right, in the form of such personages as Richard Viguerie and Burton Pines, which has been opposed to Mr. Bush from the start, is in full-throated cry that the president must go.
The United States economy reached the bottom of a relatively mild recession in the spring of 1991 and has, for 15 months now, been growing, albeit sluggishly. An objective reading of the economic data shows that, while not perhaps the best of times economically, this is far from the worst. But with few exceptions press accounts portray the president as presiding over an economy that is nothing short of "grim."
Granted, the Bush administration has made its own share of errors. The president hasn't utilized the White House staff to get the type of help he most needs, adding at times to a sense of drift. And Bush has found it hard to bring before the American people persuasively the case for his overall conduct of the presidency and hence for his reelection.
Still, the case is there to be made that George Bush has been a good president, one whose managing of affairs has been competent, whose policies have broadly accorded with the needs of the time (and the wishes of a majority of the public), and whose social values are in the national mainstream. This case begins with his handling of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the breakup of the USSR itself.
Here, Bush has been consistently sure-handed. He moved quickly in lending the full weight of American support to German reunification. To the Soviets he conveyed at every point that the US wouldn't gloat at the struggles of its long-time adversary and was prepared to help them through a transition at once painful and necessary, but that our assistance was full of hard-headed conditions. In particular, US and world interests required strong cooperation from the new leadership in dismantling the huge Sovie t nuclear arsenal and preventing its partial dispersion to potential troublemakers.
Has Bush's response to the agonies of the former Yugoslav republics, in particular to Serbian aggression, been inadequate? Clearly, at times American resources will have to be brought to bear internationally in defense of vital interests - our own, and those of the world community - but the public will give its backing only if it has confidence that these resources will be employed prudently and sparingly. The European Community has ample resources to address the problems in what was Yugoslavia; doing so
is their moral and practical responsibility.
Bush's policies in the Middle East, while hardly flawless, have been sound. This is true both with regard to promoting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and in responding to Saddam Hussein. Had the US temporized following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the balance of power in the area would have shifted in ways inimical to our interests - in oil, in the security of Israel, and in an equitable peace for the entire region. And it's simply not possible to say whether, overall, these end s would have been still better served had the US armies "marched on to Baghdad" in March 1991.
Domestically, the case for Bush rests first on the argument that he has been on the right side of the overriding issue of our time - that the vast expansion of government's reach should be curbed. In 1927, all levels of government in the US expended about 13 percent of the country's gross national product. A quarter century later, in 1952, government spending was 29 percent of GNP. By 1980, even though the percentage going to defense had shrunk, overall government spending had climbed further, to 34 perc ent of the national product. When the books are closed on fiscal year 1992, government spending will total just about 40 percent of GNP. Who will argue this trend should continue?
Did Bush err in some of the taxing and spending compromises that he made with the Democratic majority in Congress - notably in the budget deal he struck in the fall of 1990? I think so. But Bush has controlled only half the government and thus has, quite simply, been unable to get what he wants. Overall, the Bush administration has been a brake on Democratic pressures to expand government further still.
Finally, any American president is more than a governmental leader. We endow the office with large symbolic functions, and expect its occupants to exemplify the nation's best strivings in character and values. Washington and Lincoln aside, no one has ever fully measured up, and even our two greatest presidents had plenty of contemporary detractors. The case for Bush is, finally, that he has generally met the example-setting demands of the presidency.